A few weeks ago I attended talks on Rewilding in Britain given by George Monbiot and Alan Watson Featherstone. The first talk focused on the evils of sheep farming and swaling in the uplands (Dartmoor) and whilst interesting was a bit misleading. The impression given was a landscape overrun with sheep and constantly set on fire. The idea of re establishing wolves and beavers was very tempting, but he lost me when it came to bringing back elephants and rhinos. In reality, sheep numbers are strictly regulated and even more regulations apply to swaling. As a common we are allowed to burn small patches of gorse in the winter. Because of the weather this usually means March and depends on getting permission, people to help, a water bowser to damp down the edges to prevent the fire spreading and the wind to be negliable and in the right direction. So you can see it doesn't happen very often.
The second talk by Alan Watson Featherstone was inspirational, an environmentalist who has produced tangible results over the last 30 years in Scotland. He approaches landowners and persuades them to fence areas of land against deer, allowing the natural forest to regenerate. The results are amazing. There is no doubt that areas of uplands are overstocked with deer and sheep, nibbling away at new growth. The challenge is how to apply rewilding to the upland landscape, keeping the many interest groups engaged.
The main problem that I have with George Monbiot's vision is that it is all or nothing. Reforest the uplands, introduce wolves to eat the sheep, deer (and people?), introduce beavers to dam up the rivers. All to save urbanisation in the lowlands, where housing estates have been built on floodplaines and more and more land is covered in tarmac and concrete.
I see a vision of the uplands where you allow trees to regenerate along river banks and on steep slopes, stabalising the soil and run off. On Dartmoor this is easy enough to acheive by leaving gorse and bracken to grow in certain areas. Gorse increases nutrition in the soil as it is a nitrogen fixing plant. Bracken is also a soil improver and paves the way for trees to establish. Gorse especially deters browsing animals, allowing trees to grow up through (this is very evident on the approach to the farm). Sheep have a part to play in the uplands. On the farm they are very useful in the management of hay meadows, which need to be tightly grazed at certain times to allow wild flowers to compete with grass. This is also true on the common where tight grazing will allow small herbaceous perennials to flourish. One of the first things I did on the farm (25 years ago) was to plant up the very wet areas with Alder, a tree that tolerates wet and flooded conditions. The idea was to slow down the run off from the moor and help slow down the erosion of soil. The right trees have to be planted in the right situations. The shelter belt on the farm was planted in the late 60's, and is really suffering now as the wrong types of tree were planted.
On holiday last summer in the Austrian Alps I was struck by their rounded approach to the land. Steep slopes were left forrested, as the land flattened out small meadows of hay or grazing animals appeared. Wild flowers were abundant and sheltered on the margins between forest and meadow were huge beehives.